“The Little Mermaid” is among my favorite fairy tales, largely because it is so dark and tragic. You’ve brought her—or something like her—back here in an even darker form. How did this story come together for you?
I’ve always thought that at heart “The Little Mermaid” was something of a proof against love. It’s more a story of desperation, and escape, and a sort of casual cruelty no one in the story can really help—it’s a cruel story because it’s just the nature of things to be cruel. I wanted to explore the themes of isolation and terrible transformation, and adjust the vectors of yearning a little.
“It seems truer than the other stories they tell you,” as Matthew says when he reads the story of the Prince. What do you think makes fairy tales such an excellent medium for truth?
I think fairy tales have several different levels of truth, in different levels of intent. “Little Red Riding Hood” is an entertaining adventure story about a wily girl in the woods who outsmarts a wild creature; it’s a story about sexual awakening; it’s a look at family relationships; it’s a catchall warning for girls entering the great and terrible world. As the story developed and a woodsman was added to rob Little Red of her own escape, the story became a new, more unintentional truth about what the world thought the role of girls would be. It’s amazing how much can be found in such a small story; it’s no wonder they’ve endured.
People have been writing about mermaids for at least three thousand years, in almost every culture, and recently there has been a resurgence in interest in them. What do you think draws us back to the myths of the sea and the depths, especially now that our sea-faring days are largely behind us?
Maybe for exactly that reason; the depths of the sea are an immediate mystery. The sea is tangible but treacherous, familiar and unknown, a bountiful source of food and an open road to trade that would nevertheless have zero hesitation swallowing your ship. Beautiful fishwomen who drag you to your death seem like an inevitable personification of the allure and danger of the sea. Any resurgence might be due partly to the idea that as we learn more about space, it trades some of its myth for more clinical interest, making the ocean once again a romantic prospect—though as someone who thinks discovering more about things only increases their appeal, I’m probably not going to fight for that thesis very hard, let’s be honest. It might just be that the wheel of mythical-creature trends has turned, and the mermaid is up, and in a year or two, satyrs will be sweeping pop culture!
The theme of tragic obsession is something that appears in different ways throughout your body of work, including your novel Mechanique and your recent story in Nightmare magazine. What brings you back to that theme, and what other themes do you find yourself wanting to explore?
I think obsession is the kernel of so many stories; for every obvious Moby Dick narrative, there’s a cop who has a case they’re determined to crack, a loner who discovers a social cause. Obsession means that what propels the plot will also, by nature, reveal character, and the fact that it can be used so many ways to reveal both the beautiful and the repulsive makes it endlessly interesting to me. I’m also pretty sure that whatever my inventory of stories about movies, there’s always going to be another one. (Everyone’s shocked, I’m sure.)
This is your fourth appearance in Lightspeed, and I hope that many readers have discovered your work through our pages. Your first novel, Mechanique, was nominated for a Nebula award and won the Crawford award. I heard recently that you have some good news for your fans. Care to let our readers know what’s coming up for you?
Yes! Fittingly in the fairy-tale vein, I suppose, I’ve just sold my most recent novel, a historical mainstream reimagining of the Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1927 New York, to Atria; it has been a blast to research and write, and I’m very excited. I also have some short fiction coming up at Tor.com, Eclipse Online, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, and Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, among others; and as always, my quest to hit the max limit on the Netflix Instant Queue continues.